By Michael Boriero - Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Quebec government reignited the province’s language debate on Friday after Canadian Francophonie Minister Sonia LeBel revealed a list of recommendations to modernize Canada’s Official Languages Act.
The act, as it stands, gives French and English equal status in the country. However, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) government argues that French should be recognized as the only minority language in Canada.
“We should no longer talk about equality, but rather equity in terms of language,” said LeBel. “Equality is giving everyone the same thing, but the needs are not the same.”
According to a press release, the CAQ believes French is the only language that needs protection across the nation, including in Quebec. But the government’s proposed alterations to the federal language laws has English language groups voicing their concerns.
“What is happening now is there are some fishing trips that are being executed in order to get a sense of what might be the general reaction to this whole notion of strengthening Bill 101,” said Townshippers’ Association President Gerald Cutting.
In a phone interview with The Record, he said this is just another step towards Premier François Legault’s electoral promise to strengthen Quebec’s Charter of the French Language. Cutting believes Legault is feeding into the rumour mill in order to gain votes.
But the Townshippers’ president also said Canadians need to recognize the concerns raised by French-speaking communities because they are legitimate. They represent a very small minority of the overall North American population, he added.
“I think we would all be, as Canadians, concerned about making sure that French is safeguarded, promoted and allowed to flourish, but the great difficulty, though, I think is somehow to try and find a way of bridging the gap,” said Cutting.
The problem, he continued, is that the English-speaking minority is spooked anytime the language debate re-emerges in the province. Strengthening French language rights often means weakening English language rights, he said.
The federal government needs to be cautious when it comes to strengthening the Official Languages Act, Cutting continued, because it will also give more power to Bill 101. This would extend its reach into federally funded institutions like banks and the post office.
“The impact, especially in the rural areas like what we have in the Townships, could present disastrous consequences,” Cutting said.
The Legault government needs to be careful, he insisted, because enhancing French language laws will inevitably remove access to social services, education and job opportunities for the English-speaking community.
The Townshippers’ Association is already struggling to ensure at least a minimal amount of access to health and social services for English speakers. They are also fighting to keep English school boards open and trying to keep young people in the province.
“I don’t want to sound like a fear monger, but I think there are financial, cultural and just plain human issues that have to be assessed,” said Cutting, adding that Legault is goading the French-speaking majority into believing their culture and identity is in jeopardy.
Quebec Community Groups Network (QCGN) President Marlene Jennings called LeBel’s recommendation list to the federal government a non-starter. The province is “attempting to territorialize language,” she said, and continues to promote a provincial view.
“This distinctly self-serving provincial perspective undermines more than a half century of consensus around official languages and linguistic duality as a pillar of Canada,” Jennings said in a statement Friday.
If Quebec was to acquire sole responsibility on matters relating to the country’s official languages, it would “grievously erode the rights of English-speaking Quebecers,” she continued, which is why the federal government needs to maintain its authority.
“The future of Canada’s English and French linguistic minority communities is intertwined,” said Jennings.
The Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (QAHN) sent out a press release on Monday also deploring the provincial government’s statement regarding language rights. They called on the federal government to continue protecting English-speakers in Quebec.
“If Canada’s Liberal government, in the context of a ‘modernized’ Official Languages Act, acquiesces to Quebec’s demands they will fail this nation, and history will not judge them well,” said QAHN President Grant Myers.